On management and control

The I of the basic word I-Thou is different from that of the basic word I-It.

Martin Buber, I and Thou (1923)

In this week’s essay, I want to discuss the concept of management: not just the management of a company or other organisation, but the notion of control in general. We really, really like things to be under control – our own, if possible, but even if things are being controlled by evil space lizards it is still a more comforting thought than things being out of control. One of the standard responses to the presidency of Donald Trump was to declare him to be “out of control.” I hold no brief for Mr Trump, but the President of the United States of America should be controlled by someone else? Seriously?

(Of course, the people who say this want to suggest that Mr Trump is not in control of himself, as if he suffers from a kind of political Tourette’s syndrome. I very much doubt that that is the case, however. One does not become the US President by accident.)

Human beings imagine they can manage anything. Time, for example. You can buy entire books that claim to tell you how you can manage your time – searching Amazon for the phrase “time management books” gave me over 60,000 hits – and yet you can’t even turn it on and off.

We are particularly fond of managing the natural world. Heaven forbid that a forest should be left to its own devices: no, it must be managed. Otherwise it would just be wilderness – or to put it another way, not co-opted for our benefit. We are far from being the only species to adapt our environment to our needs – nesting birds, beavers and ants all do it – but we seem to be the only one that seeks to adapt everyone else’s environment while we’re at it.

The same urge to control is evident in our relations with one another. Wherever one group of people has some measure of control over another group of people, that control is never relinquished or even diminished. Bureaucracies never shrink of their own volition, either in the public or private sector. On the contrary, those with power seek ever greater power. And power-relationships are intrinsically dehumanising, and not even especially functional per Hagbard’s Law.

Why do we do this? (And in saying we I include myself and also you, dear, reader, together with most other people in this civilisation.) Let me explain what I think is at least part of the answer by means of a little story.

Let’s suppose I’m waiting for a train and I fancy some chocolate. (Don’t judge me.) It’s late and everywhere is closed, but there’s a vending machine. I punch in the code for what I what and insert an exorbitant amount of money, and all being well there will be a dull thud and my Twix® will drop onto the shelf at the bottom (other brands of confectionary are available). Most of us have had this kind of experience many times; this is in no way novel – indeed, vending machines have a surprisingly long history.

Now let’s consider a similar scenario during the day. There’s a newsagent’s kiosk, which is open. I hand the guy a slightly less exorbitant amount of money, and he gives me a Twix® (other brands of confectionary are still available). How is this transaction different? An economist would certainly struggle to tell them apart, except for the difference in the price paid for the goods.

Well, let’s say something goes wrong and I don’t get my chocolate. If it’s down to a faulty vending machine – and I think we’ve all been there – I may express my frustration in various ways, especially if I am the only person on the platform. I may also attempt to get the damn thing to disgorge my chocolate by strategic whacks or kicks. Who knows, it might even work.

But what about the kiosk scenario? If the guy behind the counter refused to sell me chocolate, for whatever reason, would I be justified in whacking him, strategically or otherwise? I don’t think so, and not just because I’d probably get done for assault. The difference is that the vending machine is, well, a machine. Its entire purpose is to dispense chocolate and other goodies in exchange for money. If it fails in that one purpose, it is broken, and the would-be eater of chocolate is fully entitled to complain. Moreover, there is probably a simple mechanical explanation for its failure.

The man in the newsagent’s kiosk is not a machine. Why is it that he won’t give me my chocolate? There could be many reasons. Perhaps I’ve been particularly obnoxious to him. Perhaps he is suffering a nervous breakdown. Perhaps he thinks I’m fat enough already (and he might have a point). Whatever the reason, it probably can’t be fixed by someone with a spanner. Whacking him is also unlikely to help.

The man in the newsagent’s kiosk is a person, not a machine. Now you will find philosophers who will claim that there is no such distinction, but if you ever find yourself behind one of them in the queue at the newsagent’s just watch how they go about buying confectionary. I’ll bet they treat the person behind the counter as if they were a person and not a machine.

Because there is, or should be, a fundamental qualitative difference behind how one relates to a machine as distinct from a person, and this is one of the things that Martin Buber is driving at in the quotation at the head of this post. The vending machine is very much an it. I am not going to ask it what it thinks of the weather. I don’t imagine that it cares about my weight.

The newsagent, however, is a person. You’ll notice that in my little story I included the detail that he happens to be male. I could have elaborated my description in all sorts of ways. For example, what relationship do I have to him, apart from being a customer at his kiosk? Perhaps I went to school with him, or he lives in my street, or he’s engaged to my cousin. Perhaps he suspects me of having an affair with his wife, which might be another explanation for his mysterious reluctance to sell me chocolate.

This slightly contrived example is presented to show that it is very much simpler to deal with machines than with persons. It is much easier to predict what a vending machine will do to than it is to predict what a person might do. Most of the time a vending machine will simply do what it was designed to do. It may run out of stock, or be too full to accept money, or develop a mechanical fault, but that is pretty much it. A vending machine is not going to have a psychotic episode or discover religion, nor will it catch flu or ask for maternity leave.

For this reason, those who manage people much prefer to treat them as if they were machines. This is a poor way to persuade a newsagent to give you chocolate and in general it is a poor way to get the best out of someone, but it is simple. It is probably the only way to do it at all if the number of people you are managing is at all large – Dunbar’s number as an absolute maximum, and probably rather less in practice.

This explains the rather obvious fact that management doesn’t really work. People are far too complicated to manage, even in the benign case where they are not actively trying to subvert management’s purposes. As Robert Anton Wilson pointed out: “There are no governors anywhere.” Or at least there are no governors where people choose not to be governed. This works on the political level too. East Germany is the poster child for governments who wish to control their citizens, and it could only exist at all with the support of the Soviet Union: when that went away, so did the regime. Effectively, the entire country was in the secret police, which placed severe limits on what else the state could accomplish.

The same goes in spades for “managing” the natural world. Most of us have some basic intuitions as to how to relate to other people. We’re social animals; we need those skills in order to survive. In industrial culture, we have no such intuitions when it comes to relating to a forest, say, or the ocean. These are vastly more complex than any vending machine, or any human being, and anything one does or doesn’t do can have unpredictable consequences. If I decide to have an affair with my newsagent’s wife I do at least have some inkling of what I might be letting myself in for. Filling the airwaves with electromagnetic radiation? Your guess is as good as mine, and probably as good as anyone’s.

Of course we still need to deal with complex systems like forests, oceans, and the weather. What we must not do is kid ourselves that they are like vending machines and that we control them. Instead we need to learn – or re-learn – ways to relate to them as if they were more like persons. Once upon a time this used to be called reverence; but that’s a subject for another time.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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